Thursday, December 31, 2009

Don't be shut out of pointless council presidency speculation

Posted By on Thu, Dec 31, 2009 at 3:56 PM

Lots of chatter surrounding the upcoming council presidency vote. Part of that's the result of Rich Lord's story about the political battle ensuing. But folks like Infinonymous (and yours truly) have been dwelling on it for awhile.

Most of this stuff is idle speculation and horse-race nonsense. But what the hell, 'tis the season. I'll get my own bet down here, and if I'm wrong, I'm pretty sure I'll be in good company. 

I'm wagering that the next council president will be Bill Peduto. And if not, then Theresa Kail-Smith will emerge as a consensus choice.

To the best of my knowledge, neither Peduto nor Ricky Burgess, his chief rival, has lined up five votes at this point. But everything I hear tells me that Peduto is closer. He's got three rock-solid votes right off the bat: his own as well as that of Bruce Kraus and Doug Shields. (Shields, the incumbent, is giving up the gavel. And who can blame him?) Burgess has only two solid votes: his own and that of Patrick Dowd.

And as I write in a story this week, Peduto actively helped newcomers Natalia Rudiak and Robert Daniel Lavelle win their races. That would be five votes right there, you'd think. Except that Lavelle is publicly wavering -- apparently because of machinations being engineered by the Udin faction up in the Hill District.

Still, I find it hard to believe that he and Rudiak would both turn on Peduto ... if only because a guy just shouldn't be that unlucky. Which means Peduto might have to get one more vote, from either Darlene Harris or Theresa Kail-Smith.

Today's Tribune-Review reports that Harris would abstain in a Peduto/Burgess match-up. That isn't surprising: Harris is closer to the mayor than she is to Peduto, certainly, and Burgess has to be the guy the mayor would prefer to work with. But Harris will surprise you sometimes. Plus, Harris and Dowd are longtime rivals -- he beat her in a school board race long ago. The fact that Burgess has pledged the powerful law/finance chair to Dowd is probably a factor here.

As for Kail-Smith, she told the P-G she thought that Peduto was too far from the mayor ... while Burgess was too close. Peduto might be able to convince her, though. As others have noted, Peduto is like a kinder, gentler Doug Shields: He's criticized Ravenstahl, but worked alongside him too ... and generally speaking, Peduto conducts himself with much less rancor than Shields.

In any case, even if Peduto can't get a five-member majority together, that doesn't mean Burgess can do better. He seems certain of getting Pat Dowd's vote, but with Harris on the sidelines, he'd have to get all of the following three: Kail-Smith, Lavelle, and Rudiak. As we've seen, Kail-Smith has expressed her misgivings.

So basically, Peduto only has to convince two leaners, while Burgess has to convince three. These guys are like a couple of teams in the AFC wildcard race. Burgess' chances are similar to those of the Pittsburgh Steelers: Several things have to go right to fulfill their playoff dreams ... and any one of them might. But it's hard to imagine how all of them could. Peduto feels a bit more like one of the other 8-7 AFC contenders ... he'd need something to break his way too, but the odds feel less insurmountable. 

In any case, if it ain't Peduto, I'm guessing it will be someone else entirely. A compromise candidate. 

And I think the most likely choice would be Theresa Kail-Smith.

Why her as opposed to anyone else? Just because Kail-Smith demonstrated a lot of finesse in handling the tuition tax debate. She seemed an honest broker throughout, and I was impressed with her performance in a panel discussion we held in mid-December. She was the only person involved in that discussion who wasn't resolutely opposed to the tax, but she handled herself very nicely.

Yes, Kail-Smith is only in her first year. But let's recall that Luke Ravenstahl took the council presidency after only two years in office. And I've seen this dynamic before. You've got two ambitious politicians vying against each other, but neither can do more than frustrate each others' ambitions. At some point, they decide that somebody has to lead council ... and since it can't be either of them, they look for the next best thing: someone who they think they can win over, or who will at least hear them out. Kail-Smith might look pretty good to both camps. 

Truth is, I don't get the sense that Kail-Smith wants the headache. But see, that would be another reason to support her: To borrow from Douglas Adams, "It is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it."

Much less likely, I think, is the possibility of councilors following the suggestion made by the Pittsburgh Comet

[L]et me give a shout-out: PATRICK DOWD FOR FINANCE CHAIR. That's your unity-government move right there, you guys might want to suggest it to Bill if you haven't already.

Ehhhhhhh... I think you might suggest this to Peduto only if you wanted to see him shoot milk -- or fire -- out of his nose. Peduto currently holds the finance chair, and the level of animosity between he and Dowd is intense. Suggesting he give Dowd the seat for the sake of "unity" would be like ... like ... like asking if you could bring along his ex-girlfriend so you could all go on a double-date. Or something.

And as I noted above, Peduto ain't the only guy on council who might have misgivings about Dowd in that spot. 

But hey, who the hell am I to say? Even at this late hour, no one can be sure of what's going to happen. And votes have been known to flip at the last moment on questions like this anyway. It's all just speculation, with nothing more at stake than some pundit bragging rights going into 2010.

OK, well that and perhaps the future of the city. As we saw with Ravenstahl's selection ... there's no telling where this stuff can end up. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Blues for the Men in Blue

Posted By on Wed, Dec 30, 2009 at 10:11 AM

"This was in his private life. It has nothing to do with his professional life."

So said FOP president Dan O'Hara of Eugene Hlavac, the sergeant recently accused of dislocating the jaw of his child's mother, in the Post-Gazette. Hlavac, who Mayor Luke Ravenstahl promoted to sergeant in 2007 despite previous domestic-abuse allegations, has been suspended, pending termination.

I actually have a bit of sympathy for Hlavac. As unpopular as that will be to say, I'll explain why in a minute. But here's the thing: As far as Pittsburgh police are concerned, it's no longer legimate for O'Hara to try distinguishing between personal and professional conduct.

Let's remember the case of Officer Paul Abel. Earlier this year, Abel was accused of pistol-whipping, and accidentally shooting, a hapless victim on the South Side. Abel had been off-duty at the time, and was celebrating his birthday by knocking back a few. If that's not the definition of living your personal life, I don't know what is. But Abel got into an altercation outside a bar that night and, in an apparent case of mistaken identity, carried out a reprisal against an innocent man. 

Abel was charged with a handful of offenses, and lost his job. But Judge Jeffrey Manning tossed out the criminal complaint. Police officers, he ruled, could engage in law-enforcement whether they were on the clock or not -- and Abel could have been trying to execute his duties by apprehending someone he thought had committed a crime.

"It is not the obligation of this court to police the police department," Manning said.

In other words, Manning waved off an offense Abel committed in his private life because in his professional life, he's a cop. So here's my advice to Hlavac: If you go before Manning for your criminal hearing, just tell him you were reaching for your handcuffs to carry out an arrest -- but then your girlfriend's face got in the way.

O'Hara certainly didn't object to Manning's ruling in the Abel case. When an arbitrator gave Abel his job back over the city's objections, O'Hara blithely asserted: "If what he did was so grievous, then he would have been found guilty of something in the trial."

But you can't have it both ways, Officer O'Hara. If a judge says that a badge can excuse things cops do in their private lives, shouldn't a cop's private conduct determine whether he can carry a badge? 

Like I said, I do have some sympathy for Hlavac. He's been accused of a crime, that's all. Firing him on the basis of an as-yet unproven accusation is arguably unfair -- and it may end up biting the city in the ass. If Hlavac is cleared, a la Abel, he'll probably get reinstated by an arbitrator too. Not only would he back on the force -- with back pay -- but we'd be out the cost of time and money spent defending the premature decision to remove him. 

Women's groups point out that the state's Confidence in Law Enforcement Act require that officers be suspended when they are charged with domestic abuse or other crimes. But the actual language of the law reads as follows:

a law enforcement officer charged with [such an offense] shall be immediately suspended from employment in law enforcement AS A LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER until final disposition of the charge ...

Note the all-caps portion. To me, that makes it legal to retain Hlavac in a desk job, without service weapon or any other trappings of state power. FOP attorney Bryan Campbell alludes to that interpretation in today's P-G story, asserting that state law "allows an officer to be removed from the streets and be placed in a desk job." 

I actually have a strong feeling that Hlavac's defenders are right in claiming the city is railroading Hlavac for political reasons. Ravenstahl must know how badly he's stepped in it, given the controversy that surrounded his decision to promote Hlavac -- and two other police accused of domestic violence -- in the first place.

But this outcome isn't really surprising. Like I said way back in the summer of 2007, the decision to promote those cops was unfair to the cops themselves

"I'm asking the public to give us a chance," Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson pled during a June 21 press conference.

That might be easier if the public had been given a chance to see the evidence [of abuse] before learning of the promotions. But Trosky was never tried on the 1997 charges; his wife didn’t show up at the hearing. [Another officer] hasn’t even faced his charges yet.

That’s unfair to everyone, including [the officer] himself.

So yeah, Hlavac probably shouldn't be ousted -- at least not yet. But he probably shouldn't have been promoted in 2007 either. Ravenstahl all but admitted as much at the time, claiming he authorized the promotions without knowing about the abuse allegations aganinst Hlavac and another officer:

"Had I had the opportunity to examine their cases, or look at the issues prior to the promotions," he said, "perhaps we would not be sitting here today."

So the city rushed to judgment in promoting Hlavac back then. And it's rushing to judgment in trying to fire him now. He's getting railroaded today, perhaps, but then everyone else in the city got railroaded back in 2007. Hlavac may feel like a victim here, but he's going to have to get in back of a very long fucking line. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Should old acquaintance be forgot ... just look at your county government

Posted By on Tue, Dec 29, 2009 at 8:47 AM

Maybe it's the season, or perhaps its this look back at the county's home rule charter by the Post-Gazette's Karamagi Rujumba. But I find myself waxing nostalgic for the political hacks of yesteryear. 

A decade ago, voters remade county government by replacing the old county government -- led by a three-headed panel of county commissioners -- with an executive and part-time council. Those reforms also involved eliminating elected "row offices" like prothonotary, something long sought by good-government types. But according to the article, some reformers are feeling a twinge of remorse over how things have turned out: 

Detractors say home rule has evolved into another political machine, complete with its own circle of insiders and a culture of patronage only slightly better than the entrenched interests voters threw out.

"It seems that all we did was change the legal structure of the government," said Mark DeSantis, a Republican who tried to unseat Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in 2007.

So you mean changing the outward form of government did nothing to alter the underlying culture? No shit. Next you'll be telling me that Democrats and Republicans BOTH cater to entrenched financial interests. I mean, who could have seen this coming? 

Well, Tom Flaherty, for one. 

The former city controller (who is now a county judge) was a leading critic of the home-rule movement. And while the story doesn't mention him, it does confirm a few of his suspicions.

Some of Flaherty's fears were off-base: Flaherty was convinced that the whole reform was a Trojan horse to facilitate a Republican Party takeover of government. Obviously, that didn't happen ... or else DeSantis wouldn't sound so downbeat. 

But I do recall Flaherty having sport with the part-time county council, mocking the notion that "citizens would throw down their plows, go vote on a multi-million-dollar budget appropriation, and then return to their fields." (That's not an exact quote, but it gets the gist.) Flaherty's critics like to portray him as a hack, but the guy understood power and how it works. And he clearly saw a problem identified in today's P-G: The county executive would hold all the power, and county council would be a joke by comparison. 

Morton Coleman, who is about as saintly as you can be if you want to know something about politics, put it this way: "We made County Council a part-time body with very minimal pay because we wanted citizens who would not be driven by political ambition and would be genuinely interested in government. I think that was pretty naive."

Me too.

Here's the problem: People who are genuinely interested in government are rare to begin with -- because for the most part, government is often not genuinely interesting. Yes, there's a chance to make a difference in people's lives, to improve society, or to inflict your elitist secular humanism upon Americans whose values you despise. But the path toward such goals can be excruciatingly dull. Ask anyone who has sat through a zoning-board hearing. 

Of course, many people do volunteer to serve on the zoning board, God love 'em, or to be school board members or township supervisors. But as miserable as those jobs are, I can understand a desire to take them on.

Those posts are narrowly focused on a particular community -- and often a particular sphere of community life. They deal in issues that hit "close to home" -- school-board members have to pay for any tax increase too. What's more, the job could be manageable even for a part-timer: You're focused on just one set of issues, just one community. And within that limited sphere, you have some genuine power. You get to be the final word on choosing a superintendent, or setting tax rates.

By contrast, consider county council. You represent numerous communities, many of which you probably have only a limited  connection with. You will deal with issues of such breadth and complexity that staying abreast of them would be a full-time job. Which you aren't being paid for, beyond a small yearly stipend of $9,000. And even if you manage to stay on top of all those issues, you're just one vote of 15, subject to veto.

Coleman himself raised some of these concerns way back in 2001. And the miracle, really, is that council does as much worthwhile stuff as it does. (Council president Rich Fitzgerald mentions some accomplishments in the P-G story, and I'd add one he omits: It was county council that spawned an anti-discrimination ordinance that Onorato never proposed on his own.) We probably have more decent folks on the legislature than we have a right to expect. 

But even if we didn't, would it be any surprise if the people attracted to council are attracted for the "wrong" reasons? If you were attracted to politics for the "right" ones -- to make a difference, to scoff at the values of regular Americans, etc. -- would county council be the first job you'd pick? I'm not sure even Mark DeSantis would. After all, he's been named as a likely GOP contender for county executive. I don't hear anyone mentioning him in connection with a $9,000-a-year council seat.

But at least he's thinking of running. No one in his whole party even bothered to run against Dan Onorato in 2007. The GOP also didn't run candidates for the countywide offices of County Controller, District Attorney, or County Treasurer.

DeSantis grouses that "the politicians and the system remain the same." But how can you blame the "system" when your political party doesn't field anyone different? The P-G quotes Jim Roddey griping that "the current council has essentially become a rubber stamp." So who's fault is that? Roddey has long been a GOP fixture -- chair of the party as well as a county executive in his own right. If his problem is that Republicans can't field viable challengers, maybe that says as much about him as about the people sitting on council.

If I'm singling DeSantis out here, it's only because he's an articulate spokesperson for a broader view. At one point, he tells the P-G that "There has always been this conventional wisdom in this region that if you change the structure of government, things will get better." That point of view was indeed espoused by the Allegheny Conference and others who pushed home rule. But when you think about it, the idea that "things will get better" simply by moving furniture around smacks of magical thinking.

Really, the Allegheny Conference crowd  took the same approach to government reform as they did to local sports teams. In both cases, the idea was -- if you build it, they will come. If you build a new ballpark for the Pirates, the team will become more competitive. If you build a new government, meanwhile, people will compete to be a part of it. 

Obviously, it isn't that easy. It takes more than some extra luxury boxes for the Pirates not to suck. And it takes more than a rejiggered office floorplan to get people invested in their government. 

What it boils down to is a problem I've discussed in a post even longer than this one. We have an anemic, burned-out local political culture, one that lacks the critical mass necessary to serve as the "loyal opposition." Inside city limits, it's easy to chalk that up to the fact that it's a one-party system. But countywide there are plenty of GOP bastions ... so maybe the problem is bigger than some "city Democratic machine."

Don't get me wrong: I'm not opposed to reforms. Scrapping some row offices was a fine idea. But if you want to change government, you also have to run somebody for the offices that still exist.

Would making county councilor a full-time job change matters? My own logic suggests the answer is "no." Like I said before, the GOP can't drum up interest in running for county treasurer, a job that pays $66,500 a year.  And the cynic in me assumes that creating a full-time paying job would just attract more hacks, except their very livelihood could depend on them toeing the line.

But saying "oh, that post just appeals to political hacks, not the people we need in office" seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. And you really start upping the stakes once you talk about fusing city government into the county -- as some people are. Assuming that county voters can elect inept officials just as easily as city voters can, wouldn't you want a legislature that can act as a viable check on executive authority? Can we afford not to change a system, if even its original champions say is too prone to hacks?

What are these reformers -- afraid of change or something? 

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Present-Minded

Posted By on Thu, Dec 24, 2009 at 2:41 PM

Gonna wind down the blog for the holiday here, but before I do, I want to note a couple gifts that Pittsburgh bloggers have given me ... and that Pittsburgh has given the world. 

Personal thanks go out to Sue Kerr, of the ever-instructive Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents blog, for introducing me to Daylin Leach's Twitter account. Leach is a state Rep from out east, and while I've written about him before, I'd never have bothered to check out his tweets otherwise. Which would have been a big loss, because these are great. Among my favorites:

I'm off to Lancaster to speak at a Marriage-Equality rally. Then I thought I'd sample some of Lancaster's edgier Mosh Pits in the PM.

At polls. turnout low. but not as low as enthusiasm for goat-butter and flax-seed bars im giving out

Spoke at 5 events today. Shockingly, nobody yelled out "you lie". Even when I referred to myself as "Genius on Ice"

The Allman Bros. "Melissa" is the best name song in the world. Sometimes I regret that my name isn't Melissa just so I could have that song

I have arrived in Harrisburg. And as I pulled into the lot, I noticed a distinct and ethereal calm settle over the place. You're welcome.
 
At Steely Dan. Becker and Fagen coming on stage now. Oh MY GOD, they're Nude!!!

I'm still laughing at these, three hours later. 

In a similar vein, I owe a long-overdue thanks to Maria Lupinacci of 2 political junkies for this video, which may singlehandedly be reason enough for Al Gore to have invented the Internet. 

Of course, local bloggers give this kind of stuff way -- for free! -- on a weekly basis. But I've done one "best of" issue this month already, and I'd like to avoid having to do another. Suffice it to say I hope that all you content providers have a happy holiday. 

Oh, and while I'm on the subject ... it seems like nobody else has noticed this, which is weird, but a few weeks ago, Pittsburgh got name-dropped twice in The New York Times Magazine's "Year in Ideas" issue.

How did Pittsburgh contribute to the life of the mind this year? By getting drunk on the South Side, for starters.

Two Carnegie Mellon University researchers, Carey Morewedge and Tamar Krishnamurti, hit the bars on Carson Street to conduct a psychological experiment. In order to answer questions about human motivation, the researchers needed to run an experiment on drunk people ... and in the South Side they found test subjects who were "often at a level of intoxication that is greater than is ethical to induce."

Pittsburgh's second bold innovation in 2009? It was none other than our pioneering use of the LRAD "Sound Cannon" during the G-20 summit. After first boasting about the equipment during the international gathering, city officials suddenly decided to get all modest about it last fall, once the threat of lawsuits began cropping up. So it's good to see this innovation getting the attention it deserves -- and to see Pittsburgh getting full credit for its unique approach to crowd control. Who knows? Maybe in a couple years we'll be celebrated for law enforcement's equally idiosyncratic take on gender relations.

No need to thank us, rest of the world! 

If you liked the Wecht trial, you'll LOVE the sequel

Posted By on Thu, Dec 24, 2009 at 10:03 AM

Christmas came early for some of us this morning, thanks to this story in the Post-Gazette. Looks like state Sen. Jane Orie (R-North Suburban Wastelands) is the target of allegations that -- like so many other state legislators these days -- she may have used her state office for political purposes.

Orie has hired Jerry McDevitt, the high-powered attorney who gave now-departed US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan conniptions in the Cyril Wecht case. And true to form, McDevitt is already tearing into his client's accuser: District Attorney Steve Zappala. As the P-G's Dennis Roddy reports, McDevitt has accused the DA

of a conflict of interest because of Ms. Orie's opposition to an expansion of casino gambling in the state.

He pointed to a story earlier this year in the Post-Gazette that detailed the involvement of Mr. Zappala's father, former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Zappala, in a gaming industry organization.

This ain't the first time McDevitt has taken after Zappala. He did the same thing in defending Wecht, alleging that Wecht's prosecution was politically motivated as well.  (Wecht and Zappala had squabbled over the former coroner's authority to conduct independent investigations, especially involving poilce shootings.)

In fact, McDevitt's tactics have barely changed. In both cases, he has turned the tables on Zappala by alleging hypocrisy. In the Orie matter, Roddy reports, McDevitt is threatening "to demand ... the computer records in Mr. Zappala's office to determine if any political work or correspondence had taken place on county computers." That, of course, would be the same kind of behavior Orie is being investigated for.

Similarly, back in 2006, Wecht was accused of using county resources to conduct outside consulting work, mixing his professional and personal ties. And McDevitt responded by "point[ing] to public documents showing Zappala has tossed more than $250,000 in business to his former law firm through no-bid contracts." Zappala, McDevitt noted, had continued receiving payments from the firm while in office. (Zappala maintained the payments were for buying out his share in the law partnership.)

I'm getting the feeling that we're going to see a replay of the scorched-earth tactics that defined the Wecht trial.

And there's a larger picture here too. According to Roddy, the inquiry is looking into whether Orie used office resources to help her sister, Joan Orie Melvin, win election to the state Supreme Court this year. So the son of a former Supreme Court justice, it seems, is going after the sister of a future Supreme Court justice. 

What we've got shaping up here is two western Pennsylvania political dynasties, about to slug it out in a court system over which they both cast long shadows. This could get as messy as the Wecht trial.

And it's almost certainly far more important. Even before the charges were filed against him, Wecht was in the twilight of his career. Having lost a county-executive race to Republican Jim Roddey a few years before, Wecht was almost certainly going to spend the rest of his days doing autopsies and showing up on Larry King. His county post was important, but not influential as far as shaping the political landscape. But the Ories and the Zappalas? There is no telling where these kids could go ... or where this case could end up. 

 

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Who's the most disappointing Democrat around? Maybe not who you think.

Posted By on Wed, Dec 23, 2009 at 11:11 AM

Congressman Jason Altmire is a favorite whipping boy for local progressives. Most recently, we've seen this in the understandably outraged response to some his votes on health-care reform. It's no coincidence, obviously, that as progressives become increasingly depressed about the watered-down, sold-out reform, Altmire has grown increasingly upbeat about it.

My own defense of Altmire, such as it is, has been that for good or ill he reflects his district. District 4 lies mostly to the north and west of Pittsburgh geographically, and skews well to the right of the city politically. Altmire would be much more blameworthy, I think, if he had a voting record that angered progressives outside his district AND the voters inside it. According to this very interesting post today by Nate Silver, we do have such a Congressman here. 

But it's not Jason Altmire. It's Mike Doyle.

Silver's methodology boils down to this: He took 10 key votes from the House of Representatives this year, and judged each legislator's party loyalty based on those votes. He then compared that legislator's loyalty to that of the voters in the legislator's district. In other words, Silver took each legislator's tendency to vote with Democrats, and compared it to his district's tendency to vote for Democrats. (Actually, I'm simplifying things a bit: Silver really compared the legislator's preformance to how other legislators from similar districts voted. But this is already getting complicated. ) 

Silver then ranked each Democrat according to how "valuable" he or she was to the party. A really valuable Dem votes consistently with the party, even though his or her voters tend to support Republicans in November. A not-valuable Democrat, by contrast, goes against the party, despite the fact that the folks back home consistently vote for it. As Silver puts it, such Democrats "potentially deserve a primary challenge" because "dumping them would leave the Democrats better off."

Jason Altmire does not appear on Silver's list of 25 most valuable Democrats, to be sure. But he doesn't appear on the list of least valuable Dems either. 

Guess who does? 

Clocking in as Silver's 6th least valuable Dem is Pittsburgh's own Mike Doyle. The reason is pretty simple: It boils down to Doyle's vote in favor of the Stupak Amendment, which would drastically limit a woman's right to control her own reproductive choices. Doyle is pro-life in a heavily Democratic district, and on Silver's chart, that swamps his loyalty to the party on other issues.

One could quibble with Silver's methodology. For one thing, from what I can tell the model seems to presume that all Democratic voters are the same -- that a Democratic voter in western Pennsylvania is as likely to be as fervently pro-choice, for example, as a Democratic in California. But that ain't so. I know plenty of pro-life Catholics, for example, who still support Democrats because of their stance on labor, environmental and other issues. Doyle's position, in other words, may reflect his district more accurately than Silver's statistical model does.

But if we're going to make that kind of excuse for Doyle, then maybe Altmire deserves the benefit of the doubt as well. He may not be the Dem we want him to be. But he may be the best that PA-4 is going to produce. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Final exam on the tuition tax

Posted By on Tue, Dec 22, 2009 at 6:13 PM

Back during the Cold War, Richard Nixon pioneered the use of what he called the "madman strategy." The idea was to convince the Commies that the guy in the White House might be just bonkers enough to push the button ... and that they better negotiate accordingly. The Russkies and their allies, in other words, were supposed to be the sane ones. 

The consensus among historians is that the strategy didn't really work. But the idea lives on, and Luke Ravenstahl's now-shelved tuition tax is a variant: Call it the "sullen post-adolescent strategy." Will it turn out any better? 

That's the main question after Ravenstahl, appearing with educators at a press conference yesterday, announced plans to drop his proposed tuition tax.

The legal merits of the tax seemed dubious: All that was certain was a protracted court battle. But as Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg noted at a city council hearing last week, it was a battle that both sides would lose, with each running up legal bills and bad PR. The tuition tax was the legislative equivalent of Mutually Assured Destruction. And if it wasn't aimed straight at Moscow -- at UPMC or Highmark, say -- it was aimed at a key ally, the equivalent of Cuba or Vietnam. 

The Pittsburgh Comet and its tribe are skeptical that the tax threat did any good, for the understandable reason that so much about the ensuing detente remains uncertain.

Three of the city's largest non-profits -- Pitt, CMU and Highmark -- did agree to transfer more money to the city than they ever have before. But how much is that, exactly? No one knows yet. All we can say is that it is more than they offered before the tax was proposed, but obviously far less than the $16 million Ravenstahl hoped the tax would produce.

Simliarly, the universities are joining with the city and other players to begin lobbying for a more thoroughgoing approach to city finances. But no one knows what the outcome of that collaboration will be either. 

Adding to the confusion is that people on both sides are going to spin this. Brick-throwers like me will suspect that -- surprise, surprise -- universities were willing to negotiate with an ax over their heads after all. The univeristy folks will insist they didn't cave, and that they were sympathetic to the city's needs all along. The mayor's backers will say he took a strong stance, but demonstrated flexibility and leadership by backing off. Mayoral critics will insist he could have gotten all this, and more, a long time back without all the hassle.

But the argument is pointless now. What's more, the fact that we can have it is perhaps the surest sign of a compromise: Everyone can spin the agreement to make themselves look good. In any case, before we judge recent events, we should look at the broader historical trend, the one suggested by this post from the P-G's Tim McNulty.

As McNulty's post points out, none of this conversation is new. Pittsburgh's recent -- and by "recent" I mean, the past couple decades -- fiscal history has been dominated by two parallel trends:

1) City officials will do everything they can to resist cutting costs;

2) Big non-profits will do everything they can to avoid paying costs

That's the nut of the issue right there. It's the demands of the Old Pittsburgh vying with the demands of the New. Or more precisely, it's the special-interest groups who called the shots yesterday -- public-sector unions and their backers -- squaring off against the special-interest groups who will call the shots tomorrow.

Those are the superpowers. And their failure to see eye to eye is the status quo that, if we're lucky, the tuition tax debate can shake up. 

I'd argue that both sides of that equation need to be worked on -- the cost side and revenue side alike. But I would also argue that in the past several years, more has been done to address the faults of Old Pittsburgh than New.

The city, as we all know, is in the thrall of not one but two forms of state financial oversight. But as far as big tax-exempts are concerned, absolutely nothing has been done to address the revenue side of the equation: Some of the city's biggest employers, its institutional non-profits, are still paying the least to support city operations. 

During the tax debate itself, apologists for the non-profits tried desperately to confuse the issue. All the change had to come from one side of the equation, not the other. Exhibit A is a deeply silly Post-Gazette op ed by John Murray, the former Duquesne University head who opined that consolidating city and county government was a "real solution" to the city's financial problems.

Others have already pointed out some of the fallacies and omissions in this piece. Basically, it purports that "the essential solution [to the city's problems] is not to tax more; it is to spend less."  But it's woefully short on specifics. Murray merely contends that "it is time to surrender vested interests," but makes clear that only one set of interests is supposed to do so. Murray seems to believe, for example, that city dwellers should feel content to surrender their council and make do with the part-timers over on Allegheny County Council. (From this, I assume that Murray doesn't spend much time at County Council meetings. City Council has always had its share of clowns, but county council makes the city government look like Athens in the Golden Age.)

If Ravensthal's deal puts an end to that sort of bogus argument, it'll have paid for itself already.

What I'd also like to see end is the argument that city residents are the only people who should be held accountable for the city's pension debt. (The pensions, of course, are the real financial problem at this point.) The reasoning here, expressed by students and others, is, "You dumbshits elected these folks -- it's your fault." But that is way too simplistic. These pensions benefits were promised years ago, but some Pittsburgh residents have been in town for less time than the sixth-year seniors at Pitt. If you're going to argue that Pitt students should get a pass just because they're latecomers, then recent arrivals can't be held accountable either.

Meanwhile, folks in the suburbs shouldn't be left off the hook either. Some of the folks living in the suburbs probably did live in the city when those pension promises were made ... all that sprawl came from somewhere. Hell, as we've pointed out before, some of the people living in the suburbs are receiving those pension checks. In any case, if you think a tuition tax was bad PR for our region, imagine what a municipal bankruptcy would do. (And yeah, that's how serious the pension problem is, as Chris Briem is happy to point out.)

The point being that a lot of folks are clothing their own self-interest in the mantle of virtue: union leaders for sure, but also big non-profits, suburbanites, and everyone else. The city could do a lot more to cut costs -- just look at the many recommendations by overseers the city has stalled on. But it has taken some early steps, and the tuition tax, I hope, has convinced some of the city's biggest employers that it is high time they began down the road as well.

As I pointed out in the column posted above, until the tuition tax came along, nonprofits this year were content to shell out a voluntary donation that was less than two thirds of what they contributed back in the 1990s. Name another constituency in this city -- residents, for-profit business, commuters -- whose non-voluntary obligations have dropped that much.

This isn't just about what the non-profits owe the city. It's about what they owe to the rest of us, who have been shouldering this burden alone. If UPMC wants to pat itself on the back with ads showing rowing teams plying the waters of the Allegheny, then it needs to get in the boat and grab a goddamn oar

This is what a community is: Old and New Pittsburgh reconciling themselves to each other. Old Pittsburgh is more than just some public-works employee sleeping the afternoon away. As I've noted before, Old Pittsburghers have been paying the state taxes that have helped support the University of Pittsburgh for decades. Old Pittsburghers also provide no small amount of business to our wonderful hospitals: Yeah, Pittsburgh would be a lot smaller without UPMC ... but UPMC would be a lot smaller without all those Pittsburghers on Medicare. So you're going to hike their property taxes if UPMC doesn't want to chip in? 

Old Pittsburgh does need to change and lower costs, but New Pittsburgh has an obligation to help shoulder the burden of the costs still remaining. 

The "sullen post-adolescent" strategy may show that Luke Ravenstahl has a some growing up to do. But it also showed that he's not the only one.  Let's hope we see a more mature debate in the months ahead.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Controversial cop again in the news

Posted By on Mon, Dec 21, 2009 at 8:06 AM

This weekend brought us news that Pittsburgh Police Sergeant Eugene Hlavac has been charged with assaulting his girlfriend, the mother of his child.

Sergeant Hlavac deserves the presumption of innocence, of course. But while I profess no knowledge of Hlavac's personal life, for some reason I can't say I'm terribly shocked at this news. Hlavac was, of course, one of three officers that the Ravenstahl administration decided to promote back in 2007 ... despite the fact that each had been accused of domestic violence in the past.

(Another one of those officers, Commander George Trosky has also been making news recently, incidentally.) 

Hlavac has previously been faulted for his performance on the job as well: specifically, a series of arrests stemming from a 2006 bicyclist demonstration. When the city's police review board tried to question him about the matter, Hlavac tuned out the proceeding by playing an iPod loudly enough that others could hear it. The review board upheld complaints against Hlavac, but these were dismissed by police brass, who said they'd already disciplined him.

After outrage greeted Hlavac's promotions, Ravenstahl pledged that a new domestic-violence policy would "address the issue from here on out," and that Hlavac and the other officers would be "closely monitored."

How's that working out, Mayor Ravensathl?

 

Friday, December 18, 2009

Victor Vanquished

Posted By on Fri, Dec 18, 2009 at 1:57 PM

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced today that director of operations Art Victor is being replaced. Effective Jan. 1, Duane Ashley, the longtime director of Citiparks, will take over the city's day-to-day management responsibilities.

On paper, it seems like an amicable parting. In the release, Ravenstahl praises Victor "for the fine job he has done for my administration and for his service to the residents." Victor, meanwhile, is quoted thanking the mayor " for the opportunity to serve in this capacity for more than two years."

But the handwriting for this move may have been on the wall some time ago.

As we've noted previously, Victor was among the mayoral appointees serving on city authority boards after their terms expired. Yet when Ravenstahl announced a slew of appointments and reappointments earlier this month -- including at the Parking Authority, where Victor is chair -- Victor's name was conspicuously absent Another Parking Authority board member, Linda Judson, was reappointed.

At the time, Ravenstahl's chief of staff, Yarone Zober, told the Tribune-Review that "the reappointed members 'have been serving the city well since their original appointment.'" Which makes you wonder how Zober felt about board members who weren't reappointed. Especially because there have been rumblings about turf battles between Victor and Zober.  

In fact, there were earlier signs of trouble: This past fall, when a panel was chosen to guide the Parking Authority through the process of leasing its garages, Victor wasn't on it ... despite being the chair. Another Parking Authority board member, Michael Jasper, was chosen for the panel, as was ... Yarone Zober. 

Ravenstahl is pondering a long-term lease of Parking Authority garages, an effort to raise money for the city's depleted pension fund. But as others have been noting, there are some worrisome questions surfacing about how that transaction will be carried out. I'm guessing this could be more grist for the mill of lease critics.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Adding up the changes at PG+

Posted By on Thu, Dec 17, 2009 at 2:12 PM

So no doubt you've already read my piece on the upcoming labor talks over at the Post-Gazette, and said to yourself: "But what of PG+, the paper's exciting new online venture?"

The site is mentioned briefly in my story, but I figured that our print-edition readership -- that rabble -- wouldn't be as interested in the online stuff as you and I, dear reader.

My own PG+ fixation began way back in the summer, with a post that broke news of the site while predicting some changes that, um, never really panned out. (The paper still ain't allowing comments on news articles.) But in the early days, the pay site was pretty underwhelming. Some of the content on the "free" side was better than the "premium" stuff hidden behind the paywall.

To be honest, that's still true. But PG+ has improved. It's added the talents of Dennis Roddy, which is never a bad idea (although I would have paid a premium not to hear him sing, frankly). Rich Lord contributes occasional Grant Street items now, which are always worth a read. And in general, there's just more "there" there ... although honestly, the site has less user-generated content than I would have expected. Other than some sports-related commentary, most of the discussion I've seen taking place between users involves asking how to sign up for freebies and so on. A handful of members seem to be providing the lion's share of comments -- and none of them are even Bram Reichbaum! 

But I've been told by some Poggers that I focus too much on the site's content. A big part of the site's appeal is that subscribers can sign up for various perks -- free tickets to shows, etc. That's led to an endorsement from Virginia "PittGirl" Montanez, who recently boasted about garnering some $400 in freebies -- all thanks to a membership costing less than $4 a month. 

But maybe this isn't such a great thing from the paper's perspective. Like, maybe the reason Montanez takes home so much stuff is that there aren't a lot of other members to reward?

So I asked Chris Chamberlain, the Post-Gazette president whose many thankless duties include talking to me. Chamberlain told me that the site "is working well" and "continues to grow steadily." The number of subscribers is "not in the millions and billions," he acknowledged: "It's in the four-digit range."

I would hope so. When I first signed up for an account in September, the number of subscribers was already 430.

Chamberlain wouldn't be more precise about the subscriber base -- though he did say it skews a bit younger than the print product. And it's difficult to verify numbers now. In the early days of PG+, the system allowed you to count the number of members yourself. But that was changed shortly after my first visits to the site. Now visitors just see a random sampling of members; if there's a way to conduct a census of subscribers now, I don't know of it.

In any case, even assuming 9,999 subscribers, each paying a $4/month subscriber rate, we're talking $40,000 a month, or less than a half-million each year. Is that going to turn the paper's fortunes around?

"At this point, the answer is 'no,'" Chamberlain says. "But we did only launch this in September, and the fact that it keeps growing is encouraging." Anyway, he says, while "dollars and cents are critically important, there's a broader picture here. It's important for us to be innovating, and trying these new business models." 

Chamberlain says the site will continue to evolve. One thing, however, will not change: Despite my previous whining, the paper will not be giving free PG+ subscriptions to print subscribers.

Listings

Submit an event

© 2016 Pittsburgh City Paper

Website powered by Foundation

National Advertising by VMG Advertising